Category: Program cuts

Audio: Jonah Edelman (and me) on “autonomy and accountability”

Johna Edelman, head of Stand for Children, addressed the City Club of Portland last Friday on the topic of improving education in Oregon, even as we face budget cuts.

He identifies three ways to improve things: teacher and principal quality, autonomy within a framework of accountability, and time.

Edelman had some good points about teacher pay and training, and the need for good and supportive principals. He also made valid points about our antiquated agrarian school calendar.

The autonomy bit raised some red flags with me, of course, since I’m very well versed in how that’s worked out in Portland. But first, here’s what he has to say about it (1 min. 32 sec.):

If you don’t have audio, here’s what I think are his salient points: accountability equals test scores. “When I say free [principals and teachers] up, I mean free them up to help students reach high academic standards set by the state and then hold them accountable when they don’t.”

Edelman doesn’t let the fact that Portland Public Schools principals in poor neighborhoods have not always made the best choices deter his optimism: “…when schools are freed up from bureaucratic rules, and given the autonomy to decide how to make maximum use of time, people and money, educators can do a far better job of providing the personalized, rigorous, engaging education that meets the diverse needs and taps the diverse strengths of students.”

At this point, I threw away the question I was going to ask him about the role of Stand in Portland school board elections, and decided to ask him how we can assure that with autonomy, poor schools don’t just become test prep factories (2 min. 13 sec.):

Edelman points out that we’re not as bad as Washington D.C., where they do 52 days of test prep (so maybe we should be happy with that?). And while he makes a valid point about special ed and ELL money from the state not fully following students, he completely missed my point about PPS principals in poor neighborhoods cutting non-core programs (music, library, etc.) to focus on “academic achievement”.

I’d like to invite Jonah out to a tour of our second-tier system in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters to see just how well autonomy has worked for the invisible half of Portland, the half that doesn’t always get the things other parts of town take for granted, like college prep, world languages, boutique condo schools, music, art, chemistry, civics, calculus literature and libraries.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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In the news: Teacher on K8s, state funding cuts

In a letter to the editor in today’s Oregonian (not published online), Portland Public Schools eighth grade teacher Sheila Wilcox gets to the point about our state funding cuts and PPS’s “already underfunded experiment in K-8s”:

As a teacher in a K-8 school in Portland, I am extremely dismayed at the talk of more unstable funding for education. Already, I am teaching eighth grade in a portable classroom on my school’s playground.

The building is poorly insulated, and the heating system is inadequate. My students have next to no access to technology (our mobile lab will be used for testing for the rest of the year), no music, and our library is the worst I’ve seen in my 13 years with the district.

I have tried to speak with several district officials and have been put off or dismissed altogether. How sad that our already underfunded experiment in K-8s will be shortchanged this school year, once again.

The still unfinished K8 transition gives students less while costing us more (much like the rigid Gate’s style academies we seem stuck with, despite the model being repudiated by the Gates foundation). The district seems to have lost interest in K8s, distracted by both the budget and the coming unveiling of the high school plan.

Also in today’s paper, Betsy Hammond writes that Oregon is alone among states discussing a shortened school year (despite most states being in fiscal crisis). Oregon is unique for both its unstable education funding, and its unwillingness to protect education from such draconian cuts.

A national shame on our Democratic Party-controlled state house and governor for failing to avoid such immediate cuts, and, most importantly, to address the long-term inadequacy and volatility of our revenue model.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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Budget bright side: time for a reset

For two years I have argued that Portland Public Schools needs to balance enrollment in order to pay for programmatic, geographic equity in our schools. With poor schools already cut to the bone, the budget crisis may force the issue.

Carole Smith has now acknowledged to the school board, in a roundabout way, that we may no longer be able to afford the “smallness” we’ve designed into our schools: K8′s and small high school academies.

“In recent years, we’ve … supported small high schools with additional staff, and added assistant principals, algebra teachers and counselors for most K-8 schools. Can we afford to continue those initiatives?”

What she didn’t say is that even with this extra funding, students in small high schools and K8s have dramatically less opportunity than students in comprehensive high schools and middle schools.

As implemented in PPS, “smallness” is massively inefficient and more expensive than comprehensive schools, where cohort sizes in the hundreds afford significantly more opportunity for less money.

These failed experiments have contributed to the ill-effects of another failed experiment: the free market student transfer policy. This policy entered a death spiral years ago; now comprehensive secondary education has been virtually eliminated from the poorest half of the district, while transfer slots into comprehensive schools have all but dried up.

Students left in these schools suffer a general and wide-spread dearth of electives, instrumental music, college prep classes, civics, after school activities, and even science, math and literature.

Just as the free market banking crisis has succeeded in nothing more or less than transferring massive amounts of wealth upwards, the PPS transfer policy continues to transfer thousands of students and tens of millions of dollars out of our poorest neighborhoods each year.

We can’t fix the transfer policy without a coherent, equitable and balanced system of PK-12 schools. But we can’t afford comprehensive programs without the enrollment to pay for them.

And no matter what we do, the district faces large budget cuts.

So what can we do?

Just as with the global banking system, it’s time for a reset. We need to imagine a system that, no matter how lean, is no leaner in one part of Portland than another.

The budget crisis may force the district to do what I’ve been asking them to do for two years: restore comprehensive high schools at Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt. Re-open closed middle schools in those clusters, too.

More importantly, the district may be forced to balance enrollment — that is, curtail neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers — to pay for programmatic equity in every part of Portland.

It is a budget-neutral way to increase programming — or stave off cuts — for our schools serving our most vulnerable students. We must imagine a system where the poor don’t bear the greatest brunt of budget cuts, as they have in Portland since Measure 5.

The bright side of this budget crisis is that we have the opportunity to design a balanced system of schools, where you cannot tell the wealth of the neighborhood by the number of classes in the high school’s catalog.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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The budget slaughter and poor schools

David Wynde issued a dire warning at the last school board meeting about the coming budget, which he describes as large cuts to an already inadequate base of funding. Though he didn’t say it, there will likely be cuts to programming, increases in class size and maybe even school closures.

Current enrollment figures, released this week, show a persistent pattern of divestment from the poorest neighborhoods in Portland due to the migration of students under the Portland Public Schools student transfer policy, and its labyrinthine, outdated and counterproductive layers of school board exceptions and amendments.

We have allowed “choice” to design a system of schools in Portland that are dramatically inequitable in terms of course offerings, teacher experience, and discipline.

School choice has dismantled, closed, or demolished (literally) every single comprehensive secondary school in the Jefferson and Madison clusters. The same is true for the Roosevelt and Marshall clusters, save two beleagured, largley poor and minority middle schools on the fringes of district boundaries.

The schools that remain disproportionately lack library staff, music, art and electives when compared to the rest of Portland, and are more segregated by race and class than the neighborhoods they serve.

It’s been two and a half years since a joint city-county audit (230KB PDF) concluded that Portland’s school choice system was at odds with strong neighborhood schools, noted declining availability of transfer slots in high-demand schools, and recommended suspension of the transfer lottery “until the Board adopts a policy that clarifies the purpose of the school choice system.”

The school board has never issued that policy, or done anything significant to reform a system that has not only failed, it’s made matters worse.

So, two and half years later, parents in the poorest parts of town are agonizing over ever more rapidly dwindling transfer slots in schools increasing distances from their homes, because their neighborhood schools have been utterly drained of enrollment, funding, and opportunity.

“This isn’t school choice,” one parent told me. “It’s school chance.”

Current transfer policy arose largely out of the last budget crisis, and the result has been devestating to poor neighborhoods and the families who live there. So this current crisis is an opportunity as much as it is a challenge.

It may seem an awkward time to demand the rebuilding of school libraries, music and art departments. But if we spread enrollment and funding proportionately to where students live, we could begin rebuild these programs in schools that have lost them. At the same time, we can maintain a base line of programming at other schools that are currently over-crowded.

Yes, there will be cuts, but some clusters and schools have fared dramatically better under choice than others. We cannot tolerate any more reduction of opportunity in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters, all of which have been cut beyond the bone. Yes, the rest of this town may have to go without some of their gravy so these clusters can have a little meat.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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Giant Steps

We’ve been taking baby steps toward equity for a while now, with no appreciable difference to schools and students in non-white, non-middle class neighborhoods. It’s time for some giant steps (and a little musical interlude).

If you can follow this, thank a music teacher (you won’t find many in Portland Public Schools, especially in poor neighborhoods, since the big cuts that followed Measure 5). Giant Steps, by John Coltrane:

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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Size matters

How student transfers, “small schools,” and K8s steal opportunity from Portland’s least wealthy students, and how we can make it right

When speaking with district leaders about the glaring and shameful opportunity gap between the two halves of Portland Public Schools, it doesn’t take long before they start wringing their hands about enrollment.

“If only we could get enrollment up at Jefferson (or Madison, Marshall or Roosevelt),” they’ll tell you, “we could increase the offerings there.”

Or, as PPS K8 project manager Sara Allan put it in a recent comment on Rita Moore’s blog post about K8 “enrichment”: “All of our schools that are small … face a massive struggle to provide a robust program with our current resources.”

Not to pick on Sarah, but this attitude disclaims responsibility for the problem. After all, the “smallness” of schools in the PPS “red zone”* is by design, the direct result of three specific policies that are under total control of PPS policy makers:

  1. the break-up of comprehensive high schools into autonomous “small schools”
  2. the transition from comprehensive middle schools to K8s, and
  3. open transfer enrollment.

Smallness is not a problem in and of itself, but it is crippled by a school funding formula in which funding follows students, and there is little or no allowance for the type of school a student is attending (e.g. small vs. comprehensive or K8 vs. 6-8).

So when you’re dealing with a handicap you’ve created by design — smallness — it’s a little disingenuous to complain about its constraints. Instead, we need to eliminate the constraints — i.e. adjust the school funding formula — or redesign the handicap.

Adjusting the school funding formula to account for smallness would be ideal, if we had the funding to do it. Since we don’t, this would mean robbing Peter to pay Paul. That is, we would have to reduce funding at other schools to pay for smallness brought on by out-transfers, the K8 transition, or the small schools high school model. This obviously hasn’t happened, and it would be political suicide to suggest we start.

So barring a new source of funding to reduce the constraints of smallness, we need to redesign smallness.

The easiest case is the “small schools” design for high schools. Where students have been constrained to one of three “academies,” with varying degrees of autonomy, we simply allow students to cross-register for classes in other academies. Instead of academies, call them learning communities. Instantly, students at Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt have three times the curriculum to choose from. The best concepts of “small schools” — teachers as leaders and a communities of learning — are preserved.

For K8s, the problem is simply that we can never offer as much curriculum with 50-150 students in what is essentially an elementary school facility as we can offer at a middle school with 400-600 students. So we offer a choice: every middle grade student can choose between a comprehensive middle school or continuing in their neighborhood K8. Reopen (or rebuild) closed middle schools in the Jefferson and Madison clusters, and bolster those in the Roosevelt and Marshall clusters. Families in every cluster then have the choice between a richer curriculum of a middle school or the closer attention their children may receive with a smaller cohort in a K8. We all like choice, right?

Which brings us to the stickiest wicket of the smallness problem: open transfer enrollment, which conspires with K8s and “small schools” to drain nearly 6,000 students from the red zone annually (that’s 27% of students living in the red zone and 12% of all PPS students). We’re well-acquainted with the death spiral of out-transfers, program cuts, more out-transfers, and still more program cuts. It has reached the point that it doesn’t even matter why people first started leaving a school like Jefferson.

If you look at Jefferson now, compared to Grant, for example, It’s shocking what you see. Not counting dance classes, Jefferson offers 38 classes. Grant offers 152.

What kind of “choice” is that? (Disclaimer: both the Grant and Jefferson syllabi listings may be missing courses if teachers have not yet submitted their syllabi.)

Obviously, given funding constraints, we can’t afford to have a school with 600 students offer the same number of classes as one with 1,600, as district leaders will readily point out. What they’re not fond of talking about is the budget-neutral way of offering equity of opportunity in our high schools: balance enrollment.

All of our nine neighborhood high schools have enrollment area populations of 1,400-1,600. Jefferson and Marshall, two of our smallest high schools by enrollment, are the two largest attendance areas by residence, each with more than 1,600 PPS high school students.

With a four-year phase-in (keeping in mind that transfers into Lincoln, Grant and Cleveland have basically been shut-down for a couple years anyway), you start by making core freshman offerings the same at every neighborhood high school. Incoming freshman are assigned to their neighborhood school, and they don’t have to worry about it being a gutted shell. (Transfers for special focus options will still be available as they are now.) The following year, we add sophomore classes, and so on, and in four years every neighborhood high school has equity in core sequences of math, science, language arts, social studies, world languages and music, paid for without additional funding and without cutting significant programs at schools that are currently doing well.

Once we have this balance in place, both in terms of offerings and enrollment, we can talk about allowing neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers again, but only as we can afford them. In other words, we will no longer allow a neighborhood program to be damaged by out-transfers.

It’s time for Portland Public Schools to stop blaming its opportunity gap on the smallness it has designed — by way of “small schools,” K8s, and open transfer enrollment — and it’s time for policy makers to stop transferring the costs of smallness to our poorest students in terms of dramatically unequal opportunities.



*I define the red zone as clusters with significant net enrollment losses due to student transfers: Jefferson (net loss of 1,949 students), Madison (1,067 students), Marshall (1,441 students) and Roosevelt (1,296 students). (2007-08 enrollment figures.) This represents, by conservative estimate, an annual loss of $34 million in state and local educational investment to the least-wealthy neighborhoods in Portland. “Small schools” were implemented exclusively in these four clusters, and the K8 transition, though district-wide, has disproportionately impacted the red zone. There are only two middle schools remaining in the red zone, one in the Roosevelt cluster and one in the Marshall cluster. By contrast, the Cleveland and Wilson clusters each have two middle schools; Franklin, Grant and Lincoln each have one.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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Libraries: an equity index

Neighborhood middle schools no library staff: 0
Of 30 neighborhood K8 schools, number with no library staff: 4
High schools with no library staff: 1 (Young Women’s Academy)
High schools with no certified media specialist (librarian): 3 (Marshall campus, Roosevelt campus, Young Women’s Academy)
Library staff at each of Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln High Schools: 3

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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A response to Carole Smith: Close the opportunity gap and the achievement gap will follow

In an e-mail sent to staff and some community members, Carole Smith expresses great enthusiasm and joy in her work on the first day of school. As a parent, I find this encouraging.

What I find discouraging is how she frames the issue of equity.

“…[W]ith every decision,” writes Smith, “we must ask ourselves about equity. All too often, a student’s family income and ethnicity predict his or her eventual success in school.”

This is true, sad, and terribly unjust.

But this defines equity exclusively in terms of outcomes. It omits two critical facts. The first is that as a school district, we control only a small portion of the inputs that lead to unequal outcomes.

Secondly, by focusing on outcomes, we conveniently avoid the inconvenient fact that a student’s race and income are also extremely accurate predictors of the wealth of curriculum and the level of teacher experience on offer at that student’s school.

The problem with striving for equity in outcomes is not that it’s a bad goal. It’s imperative that we improve things for our poorest students. The problem is that it is impossible for any school district to do this alone. We need a concerted federal, state and local anti-poverty program to make a serious dent in this problem.

“Closing the achievement gap” is a logical fallacy, in fact, and it’s perpetuated by the a breed of “reformers” we’re all familiar with: the Gates and Broad foundations, and our old friend Vicki Phillips. As they have pursued this false, unattainable goal, they have driven public investment out of Portland’s poor and minority neighborhoods and have set up schools for failure. This has led to increased out-transfers and decreased opportunity, and is a logical path to school closures. There can be no question that as a national movement, this is opening the door for more charter schools, and from there it’s just a small step to vouchers.

I don’t believe Carole Smith wants to convert our schools to charters or give out vouchers for private Christian schools. But I do believe her concept of equity is unduly influenced by those who are doing active harm to the institution of the common school.

It is a fundamental truth that we as a school district can never attain equity in terms of “success in school.”

Success, or “achievement,” are terms that boil down to extremely crude metrics (standardized tests and graduation rates), and they invariably have led to a narrower, shallower curriculum with a focus on “core” academics (numeracy and literacy) in Portland schools that serve disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students.

I’ve documented repeatedly how secondary students in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters have been systematically robbed of comprehensive high schools (0 remain) and middle schools (3 remain). The predominately white, middle class students in the Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson clusters have preserved their comprehensive high schools (all 4 remain) and middle schools (6 remain, including two each in the Wilson and Cleveland clusters).

It’s not hard to see how this reduction in the breadth and depth of curriculum would actually be detrimental to “achievement.”

Instead of tilting at windmills trying to shape outcomes while controlling only a small portion of the inputs that contribute to a student’s success or failure, Portland Public Schools needs to focus on the inputs it does control: equity of opportunity. This we can achieve, with existing funding, city-wide, today. We can end the equity “debate,” and I’ll gladly shut down this blog tomorrow, and start hammering on the state for better funding.

Let’s talk about equity in terms of not being able to tell the wealth of a neighborhood by the wealth of course offerings at the local high school.

Until we first see it in this light, and as a greater societal issue of poverty, it’s hard to take seriously the conflation of “equity” with the the logically false goal of “closing the achievment gap.”

Don’t get me wrong. I like Carole Smith, especially her energy, enthusiasm, and her desire to work with stakeholders to find solutions. She ends her e-mail with a quote from Ron Heifetz: “Solutions are achieved when ‘the people with the problem’ go through a process together to become ‘the people with the solution.’”

It is my goal to help our superintendent recognize the problem of approximately half of Portland as one of dramatically unequal opportunity. If you stand on the eastern boundary of PPS and look west, it’s hard to miss that students on the fringes of PPS (and of society) have been getting a progressively worse and worse deal as we strive to “close the achievement gap,” a process which has systematically widened the “opportunity gap.”

Instead of focusing on crudely measured outcomes, largely determined by inputs we have no control over, we need to focus on the inputs over which we have total control.

I firmly believe that if we first address the opportunity gap, gains in closing the achievement gap will follow.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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PPS starting the school year off with a…

Tomorrow marks a significant milestone for Portland Public Schools, as Carole Smith begins her second school year at PPS, the first with her own budget. It’s not clear yet how she (and the board’s budget committee) did.

Fortunately, Smith gave us some key points on which to gauge progress.

On the day her hire was announced Smith said “Jefferson’s going to be great.” Her staff solicited “proof points” from the community last fall to be implemented this fall.

I suggested a dramatic increase in funding to immediately beef up schools like Jefferson (similar to Steve Buel’s suggestion here).

I have not yet heard whether this one-time arts magnet school has a music teacher this year, or a world language other than Spanish. There was also talk of adding AP classes. (Any reports from the Jefferson community would be appreciated.)

I do know the middle and high schoolers at Jefferson’s Young Women’s Academy still do not have a staffed library. Likewise the students of the academies at the Marshall High School campus, whose principal does not think students need library staff in the Internet age (librarians, please don’t throw things at your computer while reading this).

Speaking of libraries, another huge challenge to Smith was getting the K-8 transition out of crisis mode. By early summer, many parent concerns had been addressed, and the focus of concern came down to libraries. At the district’s last accounting, nearly a third of K-8 schools completely lack library staff. I know at least one of them has hired some part-time non-certified staff, but what about the others?

Carole Smith did not explicitly set out to reform the small schools at Madison, but the issue came up and forced her hand. Were this fall’s Madison students allowed to fill out their schedules with classes across the small schools walls?

David Colton’s involuntary transfer was — kind of — rescinded, but even he calls it a “Pyrrhic victory at best.” Whether or not students are still constrained to academic silos will be the true test of what kind of victory this is for them.

And while we’re on the topic of Madison, middle grades and libraries, 88 eighth graders start at Madison High tomorrow, and the school has lost its library assistant. They’re holding a fundraiser to get the position back. Also, word is that the Madison eighth grade academy has a severe shortage of clerical staff to register new eighth grade students who start school tomorrow, many without schedules.

On the eve of the 2008-09 school year, the jury is still out on whether we’re starting with a bang or a fizzle, but some preliminary signs look troubling. Please post your experiences here, or e-mail them privately if you prefer (steve at ppsequity dot org).

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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Defining equity

The biggest problem with Carole Smith’s “equity administration” is that no leaders in Portland Public Schools are willing to define a base level of curriculum that every child is entitled to, in every neighborhood school.

This is fundamental to working toward equity.

Without this definition, district leaders are free to talk about equity at every opportunity, but can avoid actually taking meaningful steps toward it.

Equity immediately achievable

This much is true: it is immediately possible, with available funding, to offer equal educational opportunity in every neighborhood school, simply by having kids go to school in their neighborhoods.

I’m not talking about cookie cutter schools, or replicating programs like Benson in every neighborhood. I’m talking about every child guaranteed an education with a common K-12 core curriculum, ideally including library, music, art, science, math, language arts, social studies, health and world languages.

This is what our neighbors in Beaverton get, through a combination of an extremely strict transfer policy, relatively large schools, and a clearly defined core curriculum. You can walk into any neighborhood school in Beaverton and find a common level of what PPS calls “enrichment,” regardless of the income level or ethnic makeup of the neighborhood.

Contrast this with Portland, where schools vary dramatically, and race, income and address are the best predictors of the kind of opportunity available to students.

We don’t need 2000-student high schools to do this, but we clearly can’t do it in 600-student high schools with the existing funding formula.

While the size of Beaverton’s schools may rankle many idealists, I personally would rather have a large institution with smaller and more classes than a smaller institution with larger and fewer classes.

Details can vary, of course. But we must have a centrally-defined core curriculum, or we will never see equity. And we need to return to neighborhood-based enrollment to achieve the economy of scale necessary to pay for this.

Baby steps not working

Ask yourself how much equity we’ve gotten since it was declared the “over-arching” goal of current leadership.

So far, the “baby steps” approach has seen continued enrollment drains and FTE cuts in our poorest schools. There has been neither talk nor action on addressing the enrollment drain, i.e. the transfer policy, or the FTE cuts, i.e. the staffing formula.

Our schools continue to become more segregated, with dramatic differences in curriculum between white, middle class schools and poor and minority schools. These differences become especially stark and intolerable at the secondary level.

Poor and minority middle school students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to PK8 schools, where they are more likely to be deprived of libraries (nearly a third of PK8 schools completely lack library staff) and the kind of curriculum breadth available at comprehensive middle schools, where white, middle class students are more likely to be assigned (and which all have at least some library staff).

This pattern continues in high school, with white, middle class students generally assigned to comprehensive schools with broad curriculum, and poor and minority students overwhelmingly assigned to “small schools” with far less opportunity.

District leaders refuse action for fear of alienating middle class

By taking the transfer policy off the table, leaders seem to have convinced themselves that we can’t afford a common curriculum. To speak of it would be to acknowledge that we indeed have the means to solve the equity crisis, but won’t, for fear harming the neighborhoods that benefit when district policy siphons enrollment, funding and opportunity out of North, Northeast and outer Southeast Portland.

This unspoken fear — that we will alienate a few hundred middle class white families if we take bold steps toward equity — is unfounded and ironic, especially considering the number of families I personally know who have pulled their children from PPS, or plan to for secondary school, precisely because they cannot receive a fair shake in their neighborhood schools.

It is unethical to maintain current policy based on this fear. How can we deprive at least half of our students of opportunity to benefit the other half?

I don’t believe there is anybody currently on the school board who has both the conviction and the courage — it takes both — to come to the table with policy proposals that will even begin to address this issue.

Terry Olson is right; we need to start working toward electing three strong leaders to school board zones four, five and six in May. We need bold leadership in times of crisis, and we’re not getting it from the current crop of school board directors.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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